Stagnant floodwater raising health risk in Kashmir

AP News
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Posted: Sep 16, 2014 6:15 AM
Stagnant floodwater raising health risk in Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Health workers were scrambling Tuesday to manage a mounting health crisis nearly two weeks after massive flooding engulfed much of Kashmir, where they are treating cases of diarrhea, skin allergies and fungus as they hope the stagnant waters do not create conditions for more serious disease outbreaks.

Countless bloated livestock carcasses were floating across the waterlogged Himalayan region. Many residents, warned by experts to avoid the floodwaters, were rationing water bottles brought by aid workers every few days.

"The chance of cholera, jaundice and leptospirosis spreading are high," said Dr. Swati Jha with the aid group Americares. "The most essential need right now is that of clean water."

The scale of the disaster — described as an "unprecedented catastrophe" by the region's top elected official — has stunned many in India, with newspapers running daily front-page aerial photos showing isolated rooftops framed by mud-brown waters.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, while being claimed by both. And both sides have seen extreme devastation, with tens of thousands of families losing all their possessions.

In Indian Kashmir, more than 200 people were killed and another 287,000 were evacuated after homes, shops and other buildings filled to their rooftops almost two weeks ago.

On the Pakistani side of the border, where flooding hit more than 3,000 villages in both the Kashmir and Punjab regions, at least 328 people have died and 505,254 have been rescued.

New flooding overnight inundated even more villages in eastern Punjab province and were moving toward the southern Sindh province, the country's National Disaster Management Authority said Tuesday.

"The rescue and relief efforts are continuing and in full swing," the authority said in a statement, assuring that food, tents and blankets were being distributed. But many flood victims complained that they were still waiting for help. And Pakistani news channels showed images Tuesday of police swinging batons as hundreds of flood-affected people attacking trucks and snatching food in the Jhang district of Punjab.

Pakistani doctors have treated at least 123,020 patients in flood-hit areas, according to the National Disaster Management authority.

Meanwhile, Indian rescue workers were rushing in health workers, sewage pumps, water filters, water purifying tablets and 30 generators to electrify relief camps and field hospitals. Six medical camps and 80 medical teams have already treated more than 53,000 patients, according to the army, which has 30,000 troops on the ground for rescue and relief efforts. Aid workers had treated hundreds more.

But doctors said the need was vast — and urgent — though they said the cooler mountain temperatures were helping to slow any disease spread.

"There are pretty high chances of water-borne disease and disease due to overcrowding," said critical care specialist Dr. Javaid Naqishbandi in Srinagar, urging the government to send vaccines and avoid crowding people into shelters.

At least 80 percent of the main city of Srinagar remained under more than 3-4 meters (9-12 feet) of water on Tuesday, with most residents staying in shelters or with relatives on higher ground. As waters began to recede from a few areas, emergency workers started pumping out standing water. But they said it would take several months to remove all the water and clear the debris.

Rescue workers were wearing masks to avoid disease contamination. Local aid worker Fayaz Hamed said he visited one submerged neighborhood of Srinagar on Monday night where the air was filled with the smell of rotting flesh.

"It was an overpowering stench, and we saw local residents pulling two bodies (of people) out of the water," Hamed said.

In another area of Srinagar where the Indian army runs a dairy farm with more than 300 cows, only seven survived while the rest were enormously bloated and floating in the floodwaters.

Even dry areas have been affected by the disaster. With everyday municipal services shut down, garbage was piling up on lands spared from the flooding, and residents were starting to burn it in huge bonfires that blacked out the sky.

India's health minister, Harsh Vardhan, said a "large number" of Delhi government doctors had gone to the region, and he has pledged to send even more medicine, health workers and tools for filtering and cleaning water.

With cellphone services restored only in recent days, many were frantically trying to reach relatives and loved ones who have not been heard from. The government on Tuesday set up a telephone hotline to report the missing.

"After the floods, the second disaster came when telecommunications broke down," said teacher Reyaz Qazi, who dialed two telephones simultaneously on Tuesday in hopes of reaching any of his 10 relatives and friends that were missing.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked the nation to skip celebrations for his birthday Wednesday, and instead focus on helping Kashmir recover from the floods.

"My humble request — do not celebrate my birthday. Instead, dedicate yourselves towards relief work in Jammu and Kashmir through your time and resources," Modi tweeted.

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Daigle reported from New Delhi. AP writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.